The presidential election cycle provides one powerful and disturbing lesson in the U.S.: formal education has failed to accomplish the single most important aspect of why universal public education is essential for a free and just people.
Often, we view formal education as a key to economic success, emphasizing the strong correlation between higher educational attainment and greater income. But we also remain committed to our mythologies and cultural narratives about education being the “great equalizer.”
However, as this discussion will examine further, these beliefs are not supported by evidence. Yes, greater educational attainment correlates well with income, but schooling does not create equity; for example, see the inequity remaining by race:
While the relationship between formal education and any person’s career and earning potential remains incredibly important in a capitalistic society, the single most important aspect of why universal public education is essential for a free and just people remains the relationship between formal education and freedom as well as social equity.
Integral to the role of formal education as it contributes to individual freedom and societal equity is critical literacy: “challeng[ing] the status quo in an effort to discover alternative paths for self and social development.” For Paul Freire, a founding thinker in critical pedagogy, critical literacy is the ability to read and re-read the world along with the ability to write and re-write the world (see Freire’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed).
In more accessible language, critical literacy is the ability of any person to act on her/his world instead of being a slave to that world.
Critical literacy is living instead of simply surviving.
Here I want to offer one caveat: As I note often, formal schooling is not the only way to being educated. Many people (writers notably) have achieved a high level of awareness and education in spite of formal schooling.
Yet, universal public education—as created by our very flawed founding fathers—was rightfully placed as essential if people were to achieve freedom and if a country were to ever become equitable (in our inception, we were far from that; today, equity remains a goal of the U.S., not something we have achieved).
But being well educated is not simply about the acquisition of knowledge (what Freire rejected as the “banking” concept of education). Being well educated is about being able to acquire knowledge in order to investigate and interrogate that knowledge: What is the source of that knowledge? Whose interest does that knowledge serve?
Despite being economically and militarily powerful, the U.S. remains stagnated, when compared to other democracies, in a belief culture—stubbornly clinging to unwarranted beliefs despite an abundance of evidence easily accessible to anyone.
My public writing is dominated by interacting with well-educated people (often edujournalists) who are committed to provably false claims, and daily I interact with family, friends, and students who also cling to falsehoods and function while holding contradictory beliefs.
These experiences are vivid to me because they reflect my own journey, having been raised in the South and indoctrinated with beliefs that I now reject strongly—racism, classism, sexism, homophobia.
Much of my life over the past thirty years has been stepping back from beliefs that I discover are false, flawed. That process is hurtful, disappointing, even embarrassing.
Even though I am 55 and well educated, it still happens.
When teaching writing, I am so aware of the power of misconceptions and false beliefs, that I teach students to focus on misconceptions when doing public writing—a dependable pattern of “you likely think X is true, but consider this.”
And throughout all my teaching, grounded in critical pedagogy, I foster critical literacy as a foundational commitment to individual freedom and equity.
Let me end with a couple examples.
Critical literacy is an awareness of and investigation of codes. For example, why are blacks often called “thugs,” but whites demonstrating similar behaviors are not? Because “thug” is a code for “nigger” that remains socially acceptable only because of a lack of critical literacy.
And research shows that when whites are confronted with the fact of racism, they immediately emphasize their own hardships. This also is a lack of critical literacy.
Critical literacy allows an understanding of percentages: more whites are shot by police because whites outnumber blacks about 5 to 1, but blacks are more likely to be shot by police in terms of percentages—a fact of racial inequity.
Finally, as well, that whites suffer hardships isn’t the issue—because whites do. Racism is about power, and the fact that white hardship is not because of being white while black hardship often is because of being black.
Belief is dangerous because it oversimplifies the world to the point of being harmful.
Critical literacy is about being able to step back from those simple beliefs in order to negotiate and even change the real and complex world.
This is the more important why of education, more important than what job or salary anyone will have or achieve.
Education is about taking control of life so that it doesn’t happen to you, so that it doesn’t steamroll over you.
Without critical literacy, a people become pawns to demagogues and buffoons.
We are a people without critical literacy and that may result in our being the pawns we deserve to be.